Halloween season is officially over, but nightmares may still be terrifying your child.
Nightmares are often a result of stress and a too active mind that hasn’t settled down. They don’t feel good, and they can impair your child’s day-to-day functioning.
Combating nightmares takes a two-fold approach: stress relief before bedtime, and creative interventions that empower your child to take control and conquer her fears.
Keep reading below for the ultimate list for stopping those scary dreams.
Stopping nightmares before bedtime:
Limit scary media – One of the first things you should do is assess for violent or scary media your child is watching. This includes YouTube videos, scary movies, or even violent current events on TV. Her mind is processing her fears in her sleep.
Relax-This can be done through yoga, deep breathing, muscle relaxation, or a warm bath. However your child likes to be soothed, incorporate that into the routine.
Create a calm environment– If your child’s room is cluttered, or if there’s toys on the bed, or too much noise in the rest of the household, that can make falling asleep difficult. Make sure toys are put away, closet doors are closed, and if need be, buy a white sound machine (I recommend Dohm) to help muffle out that excess noise.
Avoid blue light – Light that radiates from electronics can keep your child’s mind activated. Turn off the TV, Ipad, and phone before your child starts her bedtime routine. If you read books from a Kindle –don’t. Switch to a picture book to read to your child. It will help her to better fall asleep.
Background light– Some lighting can be important, though. Many children don’t like the dark. If your child’s complaint is she’s afraid of the dark, give her some light. Nightlights or an illuminated hallway can be just enough to help soothe the fear. Also a handheld flashlight can give your child the power to light up what she needs, when she needs it.
Routine – A bedtime routine is essential to calm your child’s wired brain. Start at least an hour ahead of time, at the same time every night, during the same tasks, in the same order. This trains your child’s brain to prep for rest.
Limit exercise a few hours before bedtime – Exercise is a super important part of regulating your child’s sleep-wake cycle, so it’s important to do it at the right time. Active play close to bed time does not give your child enough time to wind down. Exercise after school and before dinner can be a good time to get energy out.
Read positive dream books – For children who still have story time, a book like Goodnight Moon has a certain rhythm that can be very soothing, and helps get your child in the right state of mind for sleep. Bonus points if you read the same book every night.
Intervening when the nightmares happens
Have your child journal – If your child is waking up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep, she might benefit from getting her thoughts out of her mind and on paper. She can journal her thoughts or even draw them out.
Talk it out–When your child approaches you about the nightmares, take the time to talk about it. Open ended statements like “tell me more” encourages your child to process her feelings. Saying “that must have been so scary for you” can validate what she’s going through.
Don’t dismiss feelings-“Monsters aren’t real” does little to reassure your child, especially if they feel real to her. Try instead “I won’t let anyone get you.” Contrary to popular belief, it won’t reinforce her belief that monsters are real. Instead, it will validate her feelings and reassure her that you are there to protect her.
Worry doll or dream catcher –These creative items give your child a tangible place to put her stressed thoughts instead of keeping them in her head. They will help her transition from needing you to stay at her bedside to your child being able to calm herself down.
Monster juice – This is a fabulous and simple strategy that lets your child take control of her fears. Take a squirt bottle and fill it with water and tell your child it’s monster (or clown, or alien, whatever it may be that she fears) juice. She gets to keep it by her bed side and if the monster should come, your child is armed to handle it. This is more empowering for your child than you trying to reassure her that monsters don’t exist.
Get creative –One child I worked with decided to put up signs to make the monsters in her dreams go away. You can help your child create signs that tells that monster exactly what she wants it to do: Go Away!! It’s empowering for your child to take an active role, plus she’s processing thru what’s bothering her as she’s getting creative. She’s no longer avoiding the problem. This can help those nightmares go away, and at a minimum, makes her less fearful of her adversary.
Keep your child in her room – Your child needs to trust her room is safe. If she needs reassuring, cuddles need to be in her room. You don’t want to set a precedent by having her crawl in bed with you. If you do, your child will learn that in order to feel better she has to leave her room. That’s not a pattern you want to start.
Treat any underlying health or mental health disorder– If there’s a sleep disorder or other health condition present, you need to consult your child’s pediatrician to see what remedies are needed. If your child experienced a trauma, consulting with a child therapist will be helpful because there might be other necessary strategies needed in order to decrease the nightmares.
Bottom line: Nightmares are a common occurrence in childhood. They can be terrifying for the child, and stressful for you. But they are manageable. With a little stress relief and some creative interventions, you and your child will be taming those scary dreams in no time.
Please comment below: How do you handle your child’s nightmares?
Jenmarie Eadie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping children to become less stressed by giving them and their parents tools, support and encouragement. She received her Master’s in Social Work from Arizona State with a dual concentration in Children, Youth, and Families; and Behavioral Health.